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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Herbert Marshall, A Biography, by Scott O'Brien

Hooray! One of my favorites finally has a full-length biography: British actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966).  Author Scott O'Brien has once again done a fabulous job with a lesser-known old Hollywood star, and those (like me!) who want to know about all there is to know about the talented, enigmatic Mr. 'Bart' Marshall should pick up a copy.  The biography was published in February of this year, and is available on Amazon, and also through the publisher's website Bear Manor Media.

[Check out my post on my favorite Marshall film performances here]

Mr. O'Brien certainly did his research. He unearthed many interviews published during Marshall's lifetime, but further, was able to talk to many of his friends and colleagues, other authors, and friends of friends, to get further insights into the real Mr. Marshall.  It should be noted that Marshall had a prolific stage career as well. O'Brien's book offers a complete list of his stage as well as screen credits. 

The book uses a chronological approach, and blends detail about his stage and film engagements with events from his personal life.  O'Brien adopts a matter-of-fact tone, and steers clear of drawing psychological inferences or embellishment.  The biography may have benefited from a bit more probing into the drive and ambition that Marshall would have mustered to overcome his disability, as well as the psychological toll over the years. The sources being ultimately limited most likely do not allow for that. 
When I first became a Marshall devotee a few years ago, I watched nearly all his films that could be found, and read as much as I could about him. Sadly, there wasn't much.  But I felt that I was pretty thorough in my own personal research, if frustrated with the lack of detail and contradictory reports.  So, I will admit with a modicum of pride that I was familiar with much of the detail of Marshall's life in the book.  Yet, there was much that I didn't know.  Here are just a few facts that were of particular interest to me:

War Injury:  Most classic film fans know Marshall lost a leg in World War I, and worked in Hollywood using an often painful prosthesis.  Many accounts state that he lost his *right* leg.  Thankfully, O'Brien confirms it was actually the LEFT, which is what I suspected all along after, as I mentioned, having watched nearly all of his available films. I can't explain why this is important to me, as Marshall, while not exactly hiding his injury, preferred not to talk much about it.  It's perhaps the laziness of other writers or researchers to be careless with facts that annoyed me whenever I came across this little error.  O'Brien even specifically cites author Mark Vieira as the source of this information.
1930s Hollywood glamor: Marshall with Trouble in Paradise
co-star and friend Kay Francis
Longevity:  Marshall worked his entire life, making his last film just a few months before he died at age 75.  According to O'Brien, Marshall never considered retirement.  This I find particularly interesting. It is not entirely clear if there were financial reasons, or Marshall just loved to work.  

Complicated personal life:  Having married five times and a carried on a significant relationship with Gloria Swanson during his adult life, it's natural that his personal life must have been complicated. But what I didn't know was that, according to comments by those that knew him, he was more of a ladies' man than even his documented relationships may have had you believe. His immense personal charm was a valuable asset in this regard.  That said, by all accounts, he was a generous, kind, and self-effacing person.

His connections with other stars:  Marshall was close to many in his profession. He was a lifelong friend of fellow British character actor Eric Blore. Marshall and Blore starred together in the comedy Breakfast For Two (1937), in which Blore played Marshall's valet. Barbara Stanwyck was the leading lady. It's a lesser known but still fun screwball comedy. Ronald Colman was also a close friend.  Both stars died before Marshall, and he grieved when he lost his old friends.
Eric Blore (left) and Marshall relax while making Breakfast for Two
(Picture featured in O'Brien's biography of Herbert Marshall
Love of Trouble in Paradise:  What is one of my favorite films was apparently a favorite of Marshall's as well.  This gem from 1932 is a classic Ernst Lubitsch pre-code sophisticated European comedy. 

His middle-class upbringing: To those of us on this side of the Atlantic, a British accent often connotes education and/or breeding.  Marshall had a fabulous voice and terrific use of the 'Queen's English'. He was admired his entire life for that, and for his brand of 'Britishness' and gentlemanly manner. He sometimes bristled at being labeled a 'gentleman' because in the UK he was decidedly middle-class, having been born in a family of working actors.

Marshall's life and career arc have the advantage of extending through the full first half of cinema history, on two continents. For that reason alone, the biography is a fascinating read - how one person navigated serious setbacks, cultural barriers, etc., to find consistent work in the industry until the mid-1960s.